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Introduction

Tourism is a growing industry in the UK, with a 2015 report showing that hotel occupancy was up by 3%, with hotel sales worth a record £6.4 million [1]. In 2016, the UK welcomed a record-breaking 37.3 million visitors, 3% higher than in the previous year; further provisional figures for 2017 suggest these trends in industry growth will only continue [2]. With the digital age in full swing, it is no surprise that this growth in tourism coincides with an increase in online-based travel bookings. According to ABTA, in 2016, 76% of holidays were booked online [3]. The majority (92%) of these bookings were made using a desktop PC, but there is a growing proportion of users booking via mobile devices, a trend which is expected to continue. In fact, other figures project that in 2017, online bookings for hotels in Europe will make up 40% of all hotel bookings, equating to sales worth up to $60 billion (USD) [4].

The result of this mass shift online is that in order to be successful and competitive, hoteliers must ensure a strong ‘Online presence’ is a central component of their marketing and service delivery strategy. In an ever-expanding digital age, this includes paying attention various online spheres, from social media to review sites such as Tripadvisor. Ultimately though, these various online dendrites must eventually lead customers to the true engine-room of online business, the company website. In the online jostle to capture and maintain business, an informative, aesthetically pleasing and functionally sound website can be the difference between failure and success. Developing a solid website is therefore a crucial step for any hotelier moving online. Thus, here we offer some considerations for creating a website which projects brand strength as well as delivering a premium online experience to customers.

The importance of aesthetics

Surviving past triage

Insights into web-use behaviour suggests that users flit through webpages very rapidly, with the majority of people leaving a page within 10 seconds [4]. However, interestingly there is also a very strong trend of what is known as Negative Aging in web traffic data. In this context, this statistical term basically means that the longer someone stays on your page, the longer they are likely to stay. Those initial ten seconds represent the critical make-or-break triage, a rapid and highly intuitive process in which consumers decide if said website seems relevant, professional, and accessible enough to be worth their time and attention. Further number crunching of this Negative Aging phenomenon shows that only after a full 30 seconds on a webpage, do you hit the point in the survival curve in which the mass webpage exodus plateaus. This means, if you can manage to keep a customer on your page for at least 30 seconds, they’re likely to hang around. All of this means that in the highly competitive online world, if you want to keep customers, you have to grab their attention fast, and hold it long enough to convince them to stay.

Catching your reader’s eye

In order to retain your traffic, you therefore need a website which grabs the user’s attention. Most people will give new information on average 2.5 seconds before deciding whether to discard it. This inevitably applies to the online world, and therefore any website wishing to make a strong, attention-grabbing and lasting impression needs to stand out. There are many devices which can be employed here. Effective use of colouring, for example, increases readership by up to 80%, attention span and recall by 83% and sales and brand recognition by 80% [5]. Given this, any hotelier wishing to build an eye-catching website must carefully consider colouring and aesthetics in their website design package, and how it reflects their brand. ‘Build your own’ website packages do allow for some limited choice in website aesthetics, but this can hardly compare to what a custom, professional website design service can offer.

Moreover, even after surviving that ruthless 30-second attention-cull, further research suggests that the average consumer will still read on average less than a quarter of the text on a webpage [6]. Time-restraints are a large factor in this, but also- who can be bothered to read a dense paragraph of text? Not only will a poorly laid out website dissuade the user from hanging around, but it will also prevent customers from accessing your message, if said message is hidden in dense text or poorly formatted images. It is therefore vital that your website contains a mixture of digestible text, images and other features, both to keep you reader engaged, and to encourage user interaction with the website.

This is especially important in the travel industry, which relies on tempting its customers with an expectation of a future experience. Customers are taking a leap of faith when they book a holiday, and therefore rightly want to know what they can expect in return. In one survey, 54% of travellers say that pictures of a destination are important when making their travel decisions [7]. Thus, having high quality images and photographs is essential for drawing customers in and helping them overcome that indecision.

A customised website for a personalised service

Providing a customer-centred, tailored face-to-face service has been the art of the hotelier throughout history. However, converting this into a personalised online experience for customers in an increasingly online world is a relatively new challenge. The rewards of tacking this effectively are great, however, with a recent study showing that 69% of leisure, and 78% of business travellers are more loyal to a travel company that personalises their experience on and offline [8]. In order to deliver a customised experience for the end user, a website itself needs to be built with customisability in mind- this is something that you will struggle to get out of a cookie-cutter ‘build-it-yourself’ website. Some custom features you may want to discuss include translation or multi-language facilities (there is a huge market of people who may not speak English as a first language) and other country-specific content, such as currency converters.

Another important custom feature to consider is an automated email service for customised correspondence, such as booking confirmations and ‘before you go’ emails. These emails can be central to the customer experience, as they provide that instant reassurance that everything is going smoothly on your end, and provide the customer with all the relevant information for their stay in one place. Emails can also be a useful way of upselling extra products and services and highlighting other possibly unexplored features of your website such as a local weather forecast widget, online guestbook/review page or travel blog. Depending on the size of your company, a live chat feature on your website may also be a useful addition, as it allows you to quickly deal with customer queries and still provide excellent customer service, whilst also reducing the phone-line burden.

Technical functionality

Don’t let them give up on you

A 2015 Worldpay analysis found that almost half of travellers abandon their online travel bookings due to issues with the online payment systems [10]. Issues cited included an overly lengthy or complicated process, incompatibilities with payment methods, security concerns and system errors. Having gotten a customer this far through the process; catching and holding their attention, drawing them in with exciting content and images, and finally convincing them to go with your hotel, it seems a crime to let them slip away at this point. Therefore, a robust online booking and payment system with recognised security certificates and a functional payment system which is enabled with a range of payment methods including Paypal and other non-visa methods, such as China’s UnionPay, is essential.

Other technical issues such as latency (a slow website) can drastically effect user experience, and as such, damage business. Slow websites lead to higher defection rates which have a huge impact on a large scale. Amazon, for example found that just 100ms of latency cost them 1% in sales, and Google saw a 20% reduction in traffic in response to just a half-second delay [11]. It is therefore essential to consider latency when designing your website, particularly if it’s a feature-heavy hotel website, complete with and online booking system. Again, this is the kind of design expertise that can only be gained from a professional.

Making your website mobile

Multiple pieces of consumer research suggest that both the UK and international market is moving to mobile. The previously cited ABTA survey showed that 36% of UK travel bookings were made using either smartphones or tablets, but that mobile bookings have seen a downturn since the previous year [3]. This is likely because users found making mobile bookings more difficult- only 44% of users said they found making a mobile booking easy, compared with 80% of PC users. However, other sources refute a downward trend, with a recent eMarketer study suggesting that 40% of all travel bookings will be purchase on mobiles in 2017 [12]. Moreover, though the majority of bookings are still PC-based, the majority of travel research prior to booking is becoming mobile, and recent figures from google suggest that of 79% of mobile travellers completed a booking after doing research on their smartphone, up 9% from 2016 [13]. However, this market is volatile, Google also found that 29% of mobile users will immediately navigate away from sites or apps that are too slow or clunky [14]. The two important trends emerging here are clear: 1. More people are using their smartphones to research and book travel but 2. They will quickly abandon if the experience is not properly optimised. There have been a number of success stories, such as that of Booking.com and Airbnb, that show a well optimised mobile site or app can be of huge benefit, but it it’s done, it must be done well.

Harnessing the search engine

There a number of other essential technical considerations that must be taken are, for example, whether your website has a valid SSL certificate (i.e. https vs. http) and SSL-enabled website. This is important from a security standpoint, which itself is becoming increasingly vital, as well as being essential if you want your website to be found by search engines like Google (which ought to be a no-brainer). Search engine optimisation (a.k.a. SEO) is a whole other subject which certainly requires the attention of anyone wishing for their website to ever be found above all the din of the rest of the internet. In fact, a whole separate piece could be written about all the other technical considerations for building a functional and secure website, but suffice to say, the expertise is best outsourced.

References

[1] Euromonitor International, “Lodging in the United Kingdom,” 2016.
[2] ONS, “Overseas travel and tourism: 2016,” Office for National Statisitcs, London, 2017.
[3] ABTA, “ABTA Holiday Habits Report 2016,” London, 2016.
[4] J. Nielsen, “How Long Do Users Stay on Web Pages?,” Nielsen Norman Group, 2011. [Online]. Available: https://www.nngroup.com/articles/how-long-do-users-stay-on-web-pages/.
[5] Xerox, “20 Ways to Share Colour Knowledge,” Xerox Corporation, 2017.
[6] J. Nielsen, “How Little Do Users Read?,” Nielsen Norman Group, 2008. [Online]. Available: https://www.nngroup.com/articles/how-little-do-users-read/.
[7] Google/Ipsos Media, “2015 Traveler’s Road to Decision,” 2015.
[8] Google/Ipsos Connect, “Traveler Attitudes & Behaviors,” 2017.
[9] J. Nielsen, “The Top 10 Web Design Mistakes of 1999,” Nielsen Norman Group, 1999. [Online]. Available: https://www.nngroup.com/articles/the-top-ten-web-design-mistakes-of-1999/.
[10] T. Helldorff, “Are customers abandoning bookings because of your online payment process?,” Tnooz, 2015. [Online]. Available: https://www.tnooz.com/article/abandoning-bookings-online-payment-processes-WorldPay/.
[11] N. Shalom, “Insights into In-Memory Computing and Real-time Analytics,” The Official GigaSpaces Technologies Blog, 2017. [Online]. Available: https://blog.gigaspaces.com/amazon-found-every-100ms-of-latency-cost-them-1-in-sales/.